The Psychology of Magic
“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”
– Karl Garmain (1878-1959)
The psychology of the human mind, sleight of hand, misdirection and (occasionally) a gullible audience, are key parts of a magician or conjurer’s act. Knowing how the mind works is an important skill for those in the magic business – a vital element for all astonishing feats of trickery. This year, the Wellcome Collection explores the worlds of psychology and entertainment to discover the truth about deception. In a free exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, visitors are given the opportunity to see magic props up close, including spirit photographs, Derren Brown’s gorilla suit, Tommy Cooper’s fez and Paul Daniels’ sawing-in-half box.
For centuries, magicians have stunned audiences with extraordinary acts that leave people believing in magic. In recent years, scientists have begun to understand how they utilise the gap between what spectators think they perceive and what they actually see. The exhibition is split into three parts: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, which have all been or are undergoing examination by psychologists and neuropsychologists.
The wars of the 18th and 19th centuries led to a rise in the belief in spiritualism. Thousands of people lost loved ones through warfare or disease and the practices of the Occult, mystics, mediums, theosophers and magicians became appealing as a result. In the hopes that they could connect with the dead, people flocked to séances and latched on to anyone who claimed to be able to speak to spirits.
Often, people created or bought their own ouija board made up of numbers, letters and a variety of other symbols, through which they hoped to receive messages directly from spirits without the help of a medium. Participants would place their fingers upon a planchette on top of a board and let the spirit guide them to the correct letters or numbers to spell out the answers to questions they asked. Inevitably, someone would be deliberately pushing the planchette to make it appear as though a spirit was present.
Séances were particularly popular during the Victorian era. Due to people’s desperation to contact the spirits of loved ones, it was easy for mediums to make them believe they had been successful with clever tricks involving moving objects and levitating furniture. Usually occurring in the dark, magicians and mediums used a number of tricks to convince vulnerable minds that someone was trying to contact them.
In the early 1900s, William S. Marriott, also known by the stage name Dr Wilmar, was a British magician who became well known for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. Pearson’s magazine, which specialised in speculative literature, politics and the arts, commissioned Marriott to write a series of illustrated articles investigating mediums so that readers could “judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject.”
Alongside Marriott’s articles, he posted photographs of himself demonstrating several effects commonly produced during séances. Levitating tables were often raised by the medium’s foot to make it appear as though they were floating. Marriott also discovered the methods used to create ghostly shapes and movements in the dark. Often, mediums were tied to their chairs to convince participants that they could have no possible involvement with the paranormal activity. In the dark, however, the restrained medium still had access to poles attached to objects, which he or she could move surreptitiously. An example of this is “spirit hands” that appear to surround the medium, however, with the lights on, it is possible to see the dummy arms attached to sticks and poles, which are being controlled by the medium’s hands, almost like puppets.
In his exposé, Marriott also debunked spirit photographs. Some photographers claimed to have captured evidence of a ghost on film, which materialised during the development processes. Sitters claimed no one else was present and yet a ghostly figure could clearly be seen in the background of portraits, family photos and so forth. Whilst many believed these were the result of a psychic force, sceptics suggested there may have been fluid on the plate of the camera, which produced the ghostly appearance. Marriott, however, discovered the truth about this fraudulent trickery.
At the same time that society was lapping up paranormal activities and psychic experiments, others set up the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge to investigate and try to understand these events and abilities. In 1893, the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) joined their ranks and paid witness to William Marriott’s demonstration and explanation about spirit photography.
Marriott produced his own spirit photographs, all the while explaining to Doyle how he had manipulated the images to make it appear as though a spirit was present. Publically, Doyle stated, “Mr Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit it.”
Unlike today where smartphones and digital cameras take a photo instantly, the oldest cameras involved using plates, special papers, development fluid and many more elements. If, for example, a plate was to be used more than once, it would pick up two different images, creating a double exposure. This way, photographers could take a photo of a “ghost” and combine it with another (ghost-free) photograph.
During the 19th century, Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841-1877), known as the Davenport Brothers, were famous for presenting illusions and other supposedly supernatural acts. Time and again, the brothers were proved to be frauds, and yet they continued to be a popular act in both the United States and England. Their most famous act was the cabinet box illusion during which the brothers were tied up and placed in a box full of musical instruments. The members of the audience, who believed neither brother was able to move, were amazed when they heard the musical instruments being played. On opening the box, the brothers remained tied up in the positions in which they had been left.
In 1865, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), an English stage magician and, interestingly, the inventor of the pay toilet, attended a performance of the Davenport Brothers’ Public Cabinet Séance in Cheltenham Town Hall. During the show, a faulty piece of equipment meant Maskelyne was witness to Ira Davenport throwing musical instruments by hand inside the cabinet, despite being tied up.
After exposing the Davenport Brothers, Maskelyne and his friend George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) put on a magic show at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly where they not only performed impressive illusions but revealed how public séances were conducted. Video clips of similar exposés are played on screen throughout the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition.
Maskelyne and Cook inspired other magicians to publically investigate mediums who were suspected frauds. These “anti-spiritualist” shows were extremely successful and proved as popular as the original séances and magic shows. Magicians such as Harry Price (1881-1947) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) exposed many mediums including Margery Crandon (1888-1941) and Leonora Piper (1857-1950).
Through watching and debunking mediums, magicians and conjurors, psychical researchers laid the foundations for important discoveries about the human mind, perception and belief. Today, psychologists at the Mind Attention & General Illusory Cognition (MAGIC) Lab at Goldsmiths University of London, are examining the act of misdirection in performances of magic tricks. Dr Gustav Kuhn, the director of the MAGIC Lab and president of the Science of Magic Association explains during the exhibition via a series of videos the misdirection of perpetual reasoning using footage from his 2006 study There’s more to magic than meets the eye.
With the aid of eye-tracking technology, Kuhn and his contemporaries have shown that magicians are very good at distracting their audience and making them look elsewhere, thus missing the moment the trick takes place. Kuhn also reveals that people often fail to see what is in front of their very eyes. The Vanishing Ball Illusion, shown in one of Kuhn’s short films, demonstrates this phenomenon. The magician repeatedly throws a ball up into the air and catches it, however, on the final throw he pretends to throw it, making it look like the ball has vanished into thin air. Many spectators claim to have seen the ball leave the magicians hand, whereas, in reality, the ball remains concealed in the magician’s fist.
By repeatedly throwing the ball, the magician convinces the spectator’s brain that it knows what will happen next. The movement of the hand on the final throw makes the brain believe that it will see the ball go up in the air. The brain registers something a tenth of a second after the eyes have seen it, therefore, by the time the brain has caught up, it appears as though the ball has disappeared.
The art of misdirection is a skill that all conjurors must learn. It involves making the audience relax their focus at a key moment and being able to guide them to look in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Magic shows remain popular today and involve all sorts of simple tricks that when executed perfectly appear to be pure magic. With the invention of television, conjurors have been able to broadcast their stage shows to the nation (and further afield), resulting in an increasing number of people wanting to perform tricks too.
The Wellcome Collection displays seven examples of “do-it-yourself” magic sets through the ages, beginning as far back as 1843 with Box of Tricks. Magicians have earnt money by producing their own boxes of magic tricks to sell to consumers. Ernest Sewell (1889-1965), who was often in great demand to perform in front of the Royal Family, was one of the first entertainers to introduce conjuring to British children in the late 1920s. In the 1950s, boxes were produced under the title Maskelyne’s Mysteries, hoping the reference to the long-dead magician would garner sales. The magician and mentalist David Berglas (b.1926), David Nixon (1919-1978) and the late Paul Daniels (1938-2016) also jumped on the bandwagon, selling magic box sets at various points in their career. Most recently (2015) Steven Frayne (b.1982), better known by his stage name Dynamo, has released his own Magic Kit. Most of these boxes include a pack of cards, rope, plastic objects and a magic wand.
Performing in front of a large crowd is a much harder feat than doing a few tricks in the living room at family parties. Thomas Frederick “Tommy” Cooper (1921-84), the fez-wearing British prop comedian and member of the Magic Circle, knew the importance of engaging the entire audience’s attention in order to make a trick work. Tommy Cooper’s acts relied on non-stop chatter and comedy to relax the audience; whilst the audience was concentrating on what he was saying or laughing at his jokes, he would make his sleight-of-hand move. Tommy was also known for deliberately botching tricks and whilst the audience was laughing perform the real trick, much to their amazement. This is known as a “sucker trick”, where the audience is led to believe they know how the trick is done, only to be proved wrong.
Unfortunately, Tommy Cooper’s reputation meant that when he collapsed on stage during Live from Her Majesty’s variety show, the audience and backstage assistants thought it was part of his act. Tommy Cooper had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. It is unlikely Tommy could have been saved if his collapse had been realised sooner – the heart defibrillator that would have saved his life arrived thirty years too late.
The final part of the exhibition moves on to mentalism. A mentalist is a magician who performs mind reading and mind control amongst other psychological stunts. Similarly to the Victorian mystics, some mentalists claim to have real powers, however, others rely on being able to read other people’s body language, understanding the human mind and performing illusions. Often, these sorts of acts create the impression that members of the audience also have psychic potential and, even though this cannot possibly be true, it is very easy to be seduced by this deception.
Recent psychological studies suggest that the human mind can be tricked into believing false explanations even though it is clear that the performer is a conjurer. Mentalist performances are less flamboyant than the typical magic shows of the 20th century. It requires concentration, often silent, to allow the mentalist to read the behaviour of their audience, which enables them to create powerful illusions.
Whilst researchers were keen to expose the ruses of Victorian mystics, psychologists are less concerned about how the mentalist performs the act but rather the ethical boundaries of such a deception. Derren Brown (b.1971), the English mentalist and illusionist who has produced several award-winning shows, openly admits that he has no supernatural abilities. He connects his success to the ability to exploit his audience’s psychological traits.
In 2016, Derren Brown’s television series The Push demonstrated how easy it can be to manipulate another person. The show explored whether it was possible to psychologically coerce someone into justifying the killing of another human being. It explored human desire to please and obey, even when faced with actions that are morally wrong.
The exhibition explores the performance techniques of other mentalists, including The Amazing Dunninger, Raymond the Enchantress and Alexander “The Man Who Knows All”.
Generally, the claims that some performers have psychic powers has been rejected by audiences and science alike. Nonetheless, it continues to be the basis of a lot of contemporary magic shows. In the 1930s, the founder of parapsychology Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) coined the term Extrasensory perception (ESP) to describe psychic abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy. Initially a serious form of research with the potential for military use, the tools used in laboratories became popular with the general public after they were released in the form of board games. These games claimed to reveal hidden ESP powers in its players.
One of these so-called games was called Telepatha Cards, designed by the well-known Harry Price. One participant would select a card from a shuffled pack and attempt to transmit the symbol shown through the power of thought to a second participant who would then guess the card.
The final method of “magic” explored in the exhibition is the power of suggestion. Whilst this may sound like harmless fun, an experiment at McGill University in Canada revealed the dangers of misleading participants. In 2016, psychologists tricked a handful of people into believing a brain scanner could both read and influence their thoughts. The results showed that participants felt they had less control over their decisions when the scanner was supposedly influencing their thoughts than when the machine was only reading their mind. In reality, however, the brain scanner was doing neither.
This experiment also revealed the potential dangers of using misinformation to make people compliant, suggestible and vulnerable. Psychologists are continuing to explore how this knowledge could potentially help to challenge negative thoughts and behaviour patterns.
What began as an exhibition about a form of entertainment, Smoke and Mirrors leaves visitors contemplating the unethical practices of contemporary magic. How far can magic go before it becomes a cruel scientific experiment and stops being an enjoyable, awe-inspiring performance? This leads to a deeper question, is the idea of free will – the ability to choose our own actions – merely an illusion?
Free admission to Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic is available at The Wellcome Collection until 15th September 2019. Live performances in the gallery take place throughout the week. Performance times are listed on the website.
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What a brilliant blog! So much covered. A complicated exhibition so clearly explained.
The consistency of your work is outstanding. Another interesting and entertaining article with benefit of film snippets makes for a new experience.
Thank you for sharing your skills and talents with us.